Editor’s Note: Well, here we are: my Least Favorite Kanye West album, 2008’s 808s & Heartbreak. Coming into the project, this was the only album in Kanye’s oeuvre that I hadn’t already listened to extensively; his “emo-rap” phase just hasn’t ever been my cup of tea. But I want to give it a fair shake, because it continues to be an important touchstone in West’s musical progression: just listen to his recent single “Only One,” which sounds a bit like 808s on antidepressants. Besides, with the recent, totally left-field announcement that Kanye would be performing the album in its entirety later this month, revisiting the 808s era has become an unexpectedly timely pursuit. So let’s get to it, I suppose. First, though, the usual reminder that we’re picking up in the middle of a lengthy series, on which you can catch up here with Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6. Then, once you’re done, you can pick up with the following Parts 8, 9, 1o, 11, 12, and 13. And no, for those keeping track, Kanye still hasn’t released his seventh solo album–though he did recently (albeit jokingly) announce a bid for the U.S. Presidency in 2020. Hey, man, whatever will keep you busy until I finish this project… – Z.H.
Our discussions of the last two albums in the Kanye West oeuvre have focused on their departures from the trademark sound Kanye developed in the early 2000s: the self-conscious revisions and last-minute shifts in direction that were the product of a drive to constantly stay relevant, to keep hurdling the ever-higher bars he set for himself with his own tireless self-hype. Yet it’s important to keep in mind that few recording artists’ early discographies are as purposeful and calculated as Kanye West’s. Recall that this was the guy who announced the name and principal theme of his first album over a year before it came out; who, indeed, had the concepts for his first four records all laid out as early as June of 2003, when he told MTV’s Joseph Patel that he would follow up his still-unreleased debut with a thematically-linked sequence of albums called Late Registration, Graduation, and Good Ass Job.
But even Kanye could never have predicted the changes that would come in the months immediately following the release of Graduation in September 2007. First, on November 10, his mother Donda West died of complications from cosmetic surgery–a tragedy, he would frequently intimate, for which he blamed himself and his move to Los Angeles, where the intense scrutiny and unrealistic beauty standards of celebrity culture presumably pushed her to elect procedures that risked, and ultimately took, her life. Then, early in 2008, the dissolution of his engagement with designer Alexis Phifer pushed him further into depression. In the meantime, his P.R. conflicts with the entertainment media and mainstream audiences were growing ever more entrenched; he sparked yet another award show controversy when he went off on a rant backstage at the MTV Video Music Awards over the perceived snub of his performance being relegated to a suite rather than the main stage. All this, combined with the anxieties already expressed on Graduation over the dark side of fame, meant that Kanye was clearly not in the mental or emotional state to record a triumphal College Dropout fourquel called Good Ass Job. So instead, he threw the biggest curveball of his career to date.
The album that would arrive in November 2008, just over a year after the release of Graduation and the death of his mother, was more than a shift away from the sound and themes of The College Dropout: it was all but unrecognizable as the work of the same, fresh-faced M.C. from 2004. Half a decade earlier, Kanye had made his name with simple, relatable rhymes over impeccable soul samples; now he was eschewing rap entirely, singing over deliberately unsoulful electronic beats with a digitally-processed voice that sounded like it was coming from a particularly distraught android. Today, for better or worse, 808s & Heartbreak has become a part of the fabric of popular music; as a pioneer of so-called “emo-rap,” its influence is clear on everyone from the obvious Drake to much less predictable figures, like trap robo-crooner Future. But it’s hard to overstate just how ballsy a move it was for Kanye to make at the time. It was, unquestionably, his most divisive artistic statement at that point–and it quickly set the standard for a second act that would serve as a series of such divisive artistic statements.
But before we get to that second act, let’s tie up a few loose ends from the Graduation era. Kanye had deliberately sequenced his third album to be shorter than his first two; he told Rolling Stone’s Austin Scaggs that he “put too much shit” on Late Registration in particular: “Songs are too long, there are skits that I would have left off. It could have been a tighter package. When you listen to it, you have to fast-forward some shit.” But despite his desire to trim the fat, he still couldn’t resist slipping a couple of bonus tracks onto certain editions of the album–both of which contain compelling traces of his forthcoming shift in musical direction. The first, hidden track “Good Night,” was probably Kanye’s least conventionally hip-hop song to date; though it contains short verses by West and guest Al Be Back, the bulk of the song consists of a sung hook by Mos Def that sounds digitally processed with something suspiciously similar to Auto-Tune. And while Japan-only bonus track “Bittersweet Poetry” actually dates back to the sessions for Late Registration–and sounds like it–its raw-wound lyrical content certainly points the way to the emotional devastation of 808s. I don’t know whether the song is about Phifer, Kanye’s previous girlfriend Sumeke Rainey, or someone else, but whoever it was clearly had Ye feeling Some Type of Way: sing-rapping about how she “cut [him] like surgery” and threatening that he’d “never hit a girl, but I’ll shake the shit out of you” while guest John Mayer croons, “I love you and hate you at the very same time.”
After those two tracks, Kanye’s first official post-Graduation release is more than a little jarring. His appearance on “Down” by R&B fuckboy extraordinaire Chris Brown is Kanye at his brashest, announcing that “Mr. West is in the building” before anointing himself as “the reason they made TiVo” and dropping the too-dumb-to-be-offensive line, “I am so retarded with a spit like a retarded kid that spits.” The verse’s timing is especially incongruous in retrospect: just two weeks before his mother’s death turned his world upside down, he was bragging about his Ray-Ban Wayfarers and the “hundred girls try’na get down, down, down” with him.
It was an unmistakably different Kanye West who emerged three months later at the 50th Grammy Awards (see Videos 4 and 5 in the playlist above). Wearing white sunglasses and some kind of light-up Sgt. Pepper hoodie, with the letters “MAMA” shaved into the back of his head, he took the stage with his usual bravado, telling the audience that he had made the award show his “new place of residence” and joking that his friend Common (whose largely Kanye-produced Finding Forever had also been nominated) would have to stop dropping his albums in the same years as his: “this is my award.” But his grandstanding was more tempered than usual. He became emotional as he started to thank his mother, snapping as the cut-off music played that “it would be in good taste to stop the music.” Later, he ended his Daft Punk-assisted performance of “Stronger” with a stark, emotionally raw version of his 2005 song “Hey Mama,” adding a new sung hook: “Last night, I saw you in my dreams / And now I can’t wait to go to sleep.” During the lines, “As we knelt on the kitchen floor / I said, ‘Mommy, I’mma love you ’til you don’t hurt no more,'” he actually dropped to his knees, his voice cracking audibly. It was a theatrical moment, to be sure, but one as intimate and moving as an award show performance could hope to be.
The same week as the Grammy performance, Kanye released his first new music of the year: a remix of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” that has been widely panned as one of his worst tracks. “Billie Jean 2008,” released on the Thriller reissue Thriller 25, isn’t terrible so much as it is superfluous: a slowed-down version of Jackson’s 1983 megahit with some added strings, a hip-hop beat, and a few vocal ad-libs by Kanye. But coming from someone like Kanye, who is both a musical auteur and a noted M.J. superfan, it’s an unqualified disappointment. Moving from one ‘80s pop titan to another, Kanye next emerged on the Neptunes-produced “Beat Goes On” for Madonna’s album Hard Candy. It’s another unremarkable guest verse, about negotiating a threesome with a girl and her friend in the club, though Kanye at least is impressed with his own work, asking himself, “Mr. West now, can you get any more fresh now? / I think I just did, just now / Talkin’ my shit, that’s how / I’m a professional, I admit that / ‘Flashing Lights’ show I live that / Fame is a drug, wanna hit that? / ‘Cause I know exactly where to get that / Did you get that?”
At least somewhat more impressive a collaboration between Kanye and the Neptunes is the remix of “Everyone Nose (All the Girls Standing in the Line for the Bathroom)” by Pharrell Williams’ and Chad Hugo’s rap-rock side project N.E.R.D. The song is technically the second of three tracks to see the light of day by Pharrell’s “supergroup” with Kanye and Lupe Fiasco, Child Rebel Soldier, but really, it’s just an N.E.R.D. song with guest spots by Ye and Lupe: about as stylistically distant as possible from CRS’ last release, the previous year’s cerebral art-rap “Us Placers.” Kanye drops winking couplets like “She stopped drinking Diet Coke / She on that coke diet,” and shamelessly digs up the hoary old ethnic comedy chestnut, “Hey, do you have any Black inside you? / Would you like some?” Still, it’s a harmless enough track–and, with its electro-hopped production and 1980s arcade game-inspired music video (see Video 8 above), it’s also a pretty representative preview for the then-ongoing Glow in the Dark Tour featuring N.E.R.D. and Lupe.
Kanye had a bigger success with “American Boy”: a frothy pop-R&B single by British singer Estelle, produced by the Black Eyed Peas’ will.i.am and co-written by Kanye’s longtime G.O.O.D. Music cohort John Legend. His guest verse is suitably light and frothy, with references to Estelle’s native land both clever (“Ribena, I know what you’re drinking”) and clunky (“Who killing them in the U.K.? / Everybody gonna say, ‘You, K.’”). And, just like in his earlier collaboration with Japan’s Teriyaki Boyz, he makes sure to drop a few approving references to foreign couture: “Dressed smart like a London bloke, before he speak his suit bespoke / And you thought he was cute before, look at this pea coat, tell me he’s broke.” It almost makes one wonder why Yeezy still hasn’t hooked up with a trendy French artist like Yelle or Sebastian, if only for the opportunity to drop some lines about his favored Parisian fashion houses.
As mentioned earlier, in spring of 2008 Kanye launched his biggest headlining world concert tour to date: the Glow in the Dark Tour, with opening acts Rihanna, N.E.R.D., and Lupe Fiasco. Heavily influenced by Daft Punk–whose lighting designers, Martin Phillips and John McGuire, joined frequent collaborator Es Devlin in creating the show’s visuals–as well as the opulent arena spectacles of 1970s progressive rock, the tour was Kanye at his most aesthetically bold and grandiose. I caught the Detroit date at the Palace of Auburn Hills on May 22, and the show was alternately mind-blowing and hilarious: Kanye in front of a massive LED screen, on a reflective stage creating illusory rolling landscapes, alternately playing his hits and “acting” in a ludicrous plot about an interdimensional journey to bring the gift of creativity to Earth. It was exactly as spectacular, silly, self-important, and otherwise inimitably “Kanye” as it sounds.
Yet, like most of West’s contemporary ouput, the tour also had its undercurrents of darkness. It’s easy to reduce the show’s narrative to, as Entertainment Weekly put it, “the ultimate ego trip”: especially the climax, when Kanye’s sentient computer tells him that he is “the brightest star in the universe,” and he flies his spaceship back to Earth using only the power of his own inexhaustible self-esteem. But there was an eerie isolation to the bulk of the performance: both literally–the same EW review notes that Kanye is the “sole visible human” on stage–and thematically, with the storyline of our hero being stranded on an uninhabited desert planet. Beneath all the technical wizardry, the Glow in the Dark shows represented Kanye as alone in the crowd–indeed, alone in the vastness of space. They may have ended on a note of self-helpy positivity, but the dominant undertone was existential terror.
So it makes a strange kind of sense that arguably the most devastating track to end up on 808s & Heartbreak, “Pinocchio Story,” would be an impromptu, incongruous freestyle from the Glow in the Dark tour’s October 29 date in Singapore (see Video 10). Halfway across the world from anything like home, surrounded by the artificial smoke and lighting of his own stadium spectacle, Kanye asks the audience–and himself–“Do you think I sacrifice real life / for all the fame and the flashing lights?” He cries out over the loss of his mother: “The only one was behind me / I can’t find her no more.” Most chillingly, he finds only emptiness in the stardom he had striven so hard to achieve: “I turn on the TV, and see me, and see nothing / What does it feel like, to live life, to be real / Not some façade on TV that no one can really feel?” The crowd, either oblivious to his pain or unsure what to do, just continues to scream, underlining the isolation Kanye expresses from the “jail” of his own fame. It’s a surreal, discomfiting moment, even more so than the rest of the record: hence, presumably, why it was buried as a hidden track, reportedly included only at the request of his friend Beyoncé Knowles. But it speaks volumes about where Kanye’s head was at in 2008, even amidst the larger-than-life pageantry of Glow in the Dark.
Not quite as raw, but still revealing, was his guest verse for Young Jeezy’s summer single “Put On”: the first new song he had recorded since the death of his mother and the demise of his relationship, which expresses in more palatable form many of the same feelings he would later lay bare with “Pinocchio Story.” “I feel like this, but niggas don’t know he’s stressed,” he confesses, his voice swathed in the Auto-Tune that would quickly become his mid-career trademark. “I lost the only girl in the world that know me best.” Of course, Kanye isn’t so in his feelings that he can’t resist a cheeky shoutout to the ladies: after lamenting, “I got the money and the fame, man, that don’t mean shit / I got the Jesus on the chain, man, that don’t mean shit,” he concludes that “when the Jesus pieces can’t bring me peace / Yo, I need just at least, uh, one of Russell’s nieces.” Despite the jokey asides, however, it’s a strikingly vulnerable verse from Kanye–made even more so by its pairing with Jeezy, arguably the hardest mainstream rapper of the era. That sense of vulnerability, and the decision to sing rather than conventionally rap, would continue to characterize Kanye’s music for the rest of the year.
But first, there were a few productions that hearkened back to Kanye’s “classic” style. Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter III, widely considered the major hip-hop album of summer 2008, featured two Kanye West beats. The first, “Comfortable” featuring veteran soft R&B crooner Babyface, is Yeezy at his smoothest, with the live guitar and strings (sampled, believe it or not, from Kanye’s own arrangement for Alicia Keys‘ “You Don’t Know My Name”) lending the song a vintage 1970s soul feel. “Word to God, my momma gon’ like this one,” Wayne says over the fade. “Yo, I think everybody gon’ like this one.” Even better, in my book, is “Let the Beat Build”: a co-production with New Orleans’ Deezle built on a hypnotic, gospel-inspired sample from Eddie Kendricks’ “Day by Day.” It’s a simple enough loop, but the sheer ecstatic wonder of the sample makes the song: “Let the Beat Build” is easily my favorite song on Tha Carter III, and probably in my top ten favorite Kanye productions of all time.
On the other hand, Tha Carter III also gave us one my top ten least favorite Kanye moments: his verse on the remix for smash hit “Lollipop.” Honestly, I don’t even know where to start with this one. What’s more embarrassing: the reference to “breastes just like Dolly Parton,” or the part where Ye calls his dick a “spaceship?” One thing I know for sure: the line, “Tell her, ‘Girl, like Doritos, that’s nacho cheese'” makes the single most convincing argument against Kanye as a great M.C.; if I were writing this piece in the summer of 2008 and not the summer of 2015, it would almost be enough for me to throw my hands up and say never mind, maybe I was wrong about this guy. In retrospect, we can at least point to the “Lollipop” remix as evidence of Yeezy’s growing interest in Auto-Tune: according to co-producer Mike Dean, it was during the sessions for “Lollipop” and “Put On” when Kanye “fell in love with” the effect. So, okay, it was important; now let’s never speak of it again.
Kanye offered a much more palatable brand of silliness with his appearance on the Sa-Ra Creative Partners-produced one-off single “EveryBody,” featuring Fonzworth Bentley and André 3000. I’ve already talked some shit in passing about Bentley, and I’m sure I’ll do it again if I get the chance: he’s easily one of the wackest artists Kanye has played a role in bringing to the public eye, somewhere on the scale between Kid Sister and Jamie Foxx as a serious R&B singer. But I find him surprisingly tolerable on “EveryBody,” a track that seemingly exists for the sole purpose of bringing together the three rappers most identified with the contemporary “metrosexual” label, so they could all rhyme about Lancóme lipstick and parasols and none of them would look at the others askance. Kanye’s part in the song is fairly minimal–that’s him crooning on the hook–but otherwise his most memorable contribution was to the video (Video 15 above). Watching him pull off those synchronized dance moves with Bentley and Dré is like witnessing the end of an era: I can’t even imagine the Kanye of 2009 smiling and dancing in a tuxedo like that, let alone the perma-scowling, army surplus-clad Kanye of 2015.
The end of summer 2008 also delivered Kanye’s third production for Compton rapper the Game. “Angel” isn’t as remarkable as the pair’s first collaboration, 2005’s “Dreams,” or as prototypically “Kanye” as the following year’s “Wouldn’t Get Far,” but its sample of Gil-Scott Heron’s and Brian Jackson’s 1978 electro-funk groove “Angel Dust” is both clever and funky. Stylistically, its retro-futuristic space groove would have fit right in on Common’s Finding Forever–which just might have been the original intent, given Common’s guest verse on the track.
Meanwhile, Kanye’s next feature as an M.C. was on “Stay Up! (Viagra)” by his friend and fellow producer-turned-rapper 88-Keys. The song actually dates back to the previous year’s Can’t Tell Me Nothing mixtape, which explains why it feels more of a piece with the Kanye of 2007 than the one behind “Put On” and “Pinocchio Story.” In keeping with the title, West’s verses are among his most sex-obsessed, with prophetic lines about “imagining something passionate” with R&B singer Cassie and his own future wife, Kim Kardashian. More problematically, there’s also another instantly-dated pop culture reference–this one to the 2006 Sacha Baron Cohen vehicle Borat–and a tasteless bro-tale of a “friend who got drunk and claim a fat bitch raped him.” However slight his lyrical contributions, however, Kanye’s executive-producer role on parent album The Death of Adam was probably his most important production work of 2008. 88-Keys credited West with helping him rewrite the concept album’s storyline about a Harlem man who is “killed” by “the power of the punani”: trimming “the fat off the album” and contributing “a brand new twist ending”–I won’t spoil it here–“that was so genius.” Just listening to the album’s quirky blend of soul samples and regular-guy rapping, it’s hard not to detect Ye’s influence–even if 88-Keys is more of a fellow-traveler than a disciple.
Or perhaps I should have said that The Death of Adam was Kanye’s most important album-length production work of 2008; because “Swagga Like Us,” recorded for T.I.’s massive crossover effort Paper Trail, undoubtedly holds that title for the single tracks. An epic posse cut uniting an all-star squad of T.I., Kanye, Jay-Z, and Lil Wayne–and, by proxy, M.I.A., with whom Kanye had been wanting to work since 2005, and whose own 2007 hit “Paper Planes” provided the song’s insistently sampled hook–“Swagga Like Us” aligns the stadium-rap aspirations of Graduation with the grandiose sci-fi of Glow in the Dark, rolling out on a layer of menacing synthesizers and a martial-sounding programmed drumbeat like a Star Wars Imperial March for the 21st century. In fact, the whole thing sounds so good that, as many critics of the time observed, the various rappers’ actual verses are practically an afterthought; though I will say that hearing an Auto-Tuned Kanye warble about “how it feel to wake up and be the shit and the urine” is one of those moments of sublime pop absurdity that he seems uniquely gifted in delivering.
But if you want to hear just how head-and-shoulders “Swagga Like Us” was above most mainstream hip-hop beats of the period, you need listen no further than the concurrently-released “Go Hard,” produced by Orlando duo the Runners for DJ Khaled’s third album We Global. The song is pretty much the definition of grating: a mess of excess Auto-Tune (from both Kanye and fellow guest T-Pain), tinny synthesizers, and Khaled’s trademark shouting that sounds like it was recorded strictly for inclusion in one of the late 2000s’ ubiquitous ads for premium ringtones. Even Kanye’s verses can’t rescue the song, as they consist almost entirely of his usual fall-back themes of how dope he is, with considerably less substance than usual to back them up. If there is a redeeming quality, it’s the closing line, a brusque, half-joking reference to the upcoming election that calls back to Yeezy’s infamous remarks about then-President George W. Bush at the 2005 Concert for Hurricane Relief: “I’mma tell you like George Bush told me: ‘Fuck y’all niggas, I’m outta here.’” Otherwise, quite frankly, I’d just as soon listen to nails dragging across a chalkboard for three minutes.
Fortunately, there’s no need to do that, because even as his guest spots continued to trickle out, Kanye was rapidly completing a new album of his own. That rapidity is worth emphasizing: while each of his previous albums had taken at least a year to record, 808s & Heartbreak was put together in less than a month, the product of an intense three-week set of sessions in September 2008. The bulk of the album was recorded in Honolulu, Hawai’i, with a small cadre of fellow artists and producers including Kanye’s mentor No I.D., manager-turned-producer Patrick “Plain Pat” Reynolds, multi-instrumentalist Jeff Bhasker, longtime collaborator Mike Dean, and recent G.O.O.D. Music signees Kid Cudi and Mr Hudson. Along with this speedy new approach to recording came an equally rapid, almost real-time rate of delivery: less than a week after commencing the sessions–and a mere 10 days after writing the song–he had already debuted the album’s first track, “Love Lockdown,” at the MTV Video Music Awards, with the finished studio version to follow just a week and a half later.
If Kanye’s previous 2008 output had signaled a major shift in his sensibility, then “Love Lockdown” served as that shift’s definitive confirmation; it sounded, with no hyperbole, like nothing else in his catalogue to date. Suddenly, the same guy who had worked so hard to get himself taken seriously as a rapper wasn’t rapping at all–or even sing-rapping, like he did on “Put On,” “Swagga Like Us,” or “Go Hard”–but singing actual melodies; yet his voice, both in spite and because of the digital manipulation, sounded weak and fragile, quavering wildly on the leaked early version in particular. Kanye’s insistence on singing despite his all-too-obvious lack of vocal chops has often been (and continues to be) mistaken for hubris, as if he actually thought he had a strong voice–an understandable assumption, perhaps, considering his storied ego. But the way Kanye puts it, he sang not because he wanted to, but because he had to: “It was what was in my heart,” he told MTV that November. “The type of ideas that it was coming up with, the melodies that were in me–what was in me I couldn’t stop.”
So, okay, maybe the explanation that he had melodies “in his heart” is a little corny. But Kanye has consistently made it clear that his very lack of traditional singing ability is a crucial aspect of his vocal style. His critics–including no less an authority on Auto-Tune than T-Pain–are missing the point when they say that he can’t really sing, or that his Auto-Tune sounds “wobbly”: like so many other aspects of his artistry, Kanye uses his technical shortcomings as a strength, turning his voice into an expressive instrument with an uncannily alienating effect. On “Love Lockdown,” that effect expresses an emotional turmoil his words can’t fully capture. Accompanied by an almost subliminal, heartbeat-like drum machine pulse, the opening lyrics are West at his most minimalist, like the barest outline of a breakup song: “I’m not loving you, way I wanted to / What I had to do, had to run from you.” But as the song picks up, accompanied by live taiko drums and a keyboard line by Jeff Bhasker, his vocals grow increasingly strangled, distorted, and unruly; by the chorus, which features Kanye’s “sad robot” voice going through virtually every possible intonation of the phrase “keep your love lock-down,” he’s dramatizing the whole spectrum of emotions his words warn not to express.
A similar effect emerges as a visual motif in Simon Henwood’s music video for “Love Lockdown,” which perhaps demands its own discussion more than any of Kanye’s other videos (see Video 20 in the playlist above). Like the song itself, the video begins on a minimalist note: just Kanye, dressed from head to toe in white, alone in a similarly monochrome room. With its barely-furnished walls and slipcovered furniture, the setting was inspired by Patrick Bateman’s apartment in the 2000 film American Psycho–a telling reference as is–but it also bears more than a passing resemblance to Kanye’s own “vast, sparsely furnished” SoHo loft, as described in a 2009 interview with Ivan Solotaroff for Details magazine. There are the “massive windows…hung with solar blinds that let in most of the light but only fractions of the snow-covered cityscape”; and there–wait, is that the same telescope made infamous by comedian Aziz Ansari‘s Intimate Moments for a Sensual Evening? You know, the one Kanye allegedly interrupted a conversation to look through at “the girl with the big titties?” Right from the beginning, the video paints a stark picture of an artist isolated by his own wealth, alone in his perfectly-maintained modernist prison of a home, able to connect to the outside world only through acts of voyeurism.
But then the chorus kicks in, and things start to get weird. Kanye’s pristine white apartment is suddenly invaded by a stampede of dancing, drumming African tribesmen in full war regalia. They leap into the camera, snarling and brandishing spears. Several of them are covered from head to toe in white chalk; we also catch glimpses of what appears (distressingly) to be a white model covered in black paint. The imagery is bizarre, and it would be all too easy to write it off as racist. Certainly, as sociologist Lisa Wade discusses, it’s an example of the “primitive/modern binary” that connects intimately with Western colonialist hierarchies of nature and civilization: “Primitives, we presume, are superstitious, driven by passions, more instinctual than intellectual, more closely connected to animals and nature more generally. Moderns, by contrast, are assumed to be rational, in control of our emotions; modernity has brought us science and technology and taken us farther away from nature.” To see such imagery crop up in a video made by a white director for a Black artist is problematic, to say the least.
I’m inclined, however, to give Kanye a little more credit for understanding and playing with the racial implications of the video: indeed, looked at from another angle, the imagery works as a canny commentary on the whole racial and cultural arc of Kanye’s career. As we’ve seen, by 2008 Kanye had moved from the defiantly and specifically Black point of view he’d espoused on The College Dropout to hanging out with Marc Jacobs and recording songs with Chris Martin from Coldplay. The, shall we say, broadening of his cultural horizons undoubtedly increased his crossover appeal; but it also alienated many of his older fans–many of whom, though not all, were Black. When these older fans say (as they often do) that they “miss the old Kanye,” part of what they mean is that they miss the “Black Kanye”: the Kanye who rhymed about single Black females and shit-talking in barbershops and granny’s soul food, not designer suits and being flashed by the paparazzi. Framed in this context, it’s hard not to see the tribal phantasmagoria of the “Love Lockdown” video as a manifestation of Kanye’s grappling with his own Blackness: watching as the modernist clean lines of his loft (in gentrified SoHo, no less) are trampled by ghosts from a motherland so distant it can only be imagined through colonialist clichés. The white-painted Africans both reference actual tribal customs–see, for example, the chalk decorations of the Ethiopian Karo people–and the use of “white” cultural signifiers by Kanye himself, who remains Black on the inside no matter how many slim-cut blazers he wears . And the girl in blackface–well, isn’t the ostentatious use of “African tribesmen” as props a kind of “blackface” in and of itself? “Love Lockdown” may seem to fall back on the colonialist tropes of “primitive” peoples as “authentic,” and therefore both appealing and threatening to civility; but its very invocation of those tropes only exposes them as inauthentic: a tormented, self-loathing, and alienated millionaire’s guilty tribal fantasies.
In any case, let’s turn briefly to another guest appearance: this time with Ye’s old friend John Legend, on his third album Evolver. “It’s Over,” a co-production with the Neptunes and Dungeon Family-affiliated duo KP & Malay, finds Kanye looking back again at a failed relationship, but with considerably less angst than on “Love Lockdown” or “Pinocchio Story”: “We like Bobby and Whitney / Except without the kiddies,” he jokes, “Like Pamela Anderson’s career / Except without the titties.” It’s a catchy tune, with a streamlined funkiness typical of the Neptunes; and, if nothing else, its use of the classic breakbeat from “Get Up and Dance” by Freedom probably came as a relief to anyone who had begun to doubt Kanye’s hip-hop credentials after “Love Lockdown.”
Those hip-hop credentials, however, would be thrown even more into question with the release of the second single from 808s & Heartbreak. After the rush release of “Love Lockdown,” Kanye had hunkered down and finished work on the album, bringing in T-Pain to help him with the Auto-Tune; by September 24, he had announced on his blog that he’d completed recording and pushed the release date up to “November something,” because “I want y’all to hear it as soon as possible.” But he ended up tinkering with the record some more, putting on finishing touches through the month of October. The next official track we heard from him, “Heartless,” did indeed come out on “November something”–the fifth, to be exact. And, while T-Pain had claimed his job as a consultant was to keep the album from sounding “adult contemporary”…well, let’s just say that “Heartless” is the only Kanye West song to be covered by “How to Save a Life” singers the Fray and contestants on both American Idol and The Voice.
Okay, okay, I’ll be nice: “Heartless” isn’t that bad. Co-written with No I.D., Kid Cudi, and Malik Yusef, it’s another definitive step away from hip-hop and toward what Kanye was now calling “pop art”: losing the pounding drums from “Love Lockdown” and replacing them with another subliminal drum machine pattern (the album does have 808 in the name, after all) and a Jeff Bhasker synth part that sounds a bit like a pan flute. And taken on those terms, it’s certainly a success, with a more hummable melody and hook than the previous single; again, there’s a reason why so many MOR pop artists have taken a shine to the song. But “Heartless” is also as navel-gazing and self-pitying as 808s–an exceptionally navel-gazing, self-pitying album–ever gets; and, with T-Pain’s guidance now smoothing the rough edges off his approach to Auto-Tune, Kanye doesn’t even have the off-kilter vocal style he used on “Love Lockdown” to evoke the feelings his banal lyrics cannot.
One thing I will say: having never paid much attention to this song in the past, the opening lyric about “the coldest story ever told” always rubbed me the wrong way. It felt excessively self-important, even for Kanye; like, come on bro, your fiancée dumping you is the coldest story ever told? During his 2009 performance on VH1 Storytellers, however, he clarified that the tellers of that “coldest story” are the voices in his own head “when another woman is beside me in my bed”; this note of self-recrimination–that Kanye, not Alexis, is the real villain of his own story–adds a much-needed layer of emotional sophistication to the song. Not gonna lie, though: “Heartless” still ain’t my fave.
The release of 808s & Heartbreak was only a few weeks away at this point, but first Kanye had a couple of guest spots up his sleeve. “Therapy,” from T-Pain’s Thr33 Ringz album, found Yeezy still in breakup mode; and though the arrangement is much bouncier than his own music from the period, the lyrics are downright dark, moving from sadomasochism to outright physical abuse: “Remember those nights on the kitchen sink / I was choking you in a good way, good way / Now we in the streets and I’m choking you in a hood way / When the cops come, what I could say?” It wasn’t the first time Kanye’s lyrics showed his mean streak, and it won’t be the last; T-Pain, it seems, knows that better than anybody, having apparently been subjected during the 808s sessions to an impromptu dis song culminating in a Kanye-led group chant of “T-Pain’s shit is weak.” In Kanye’s defense, however, at least T-Pain admitted that the musical bullying was well-done: “It was actually pretty lyrical,” he told Vlad TV last year. “I actually thought he should have put that on the record at some point.”
Meanwhile, after the major stylistic shifts of the past six months, Kanye’s verse on “The Finer Things” with DJ Felli Fel, Ne-Yo, Fabolous, and Jermaine Dupri was such a blatant retread of his past lyrical themes that it’s almost comforting: “Bitches hatin’ again, that’s music to my ears,” he crows, “What you think my fuel was for all of these years?” But there’s also a darker, angrier undercurrent–one that wouldn’t be fully developed until the album after 808s & Heartbreak–in the lines that follow, when he suggests he “might just bite a motherfucker like Tyson.”
With the release of 808s & Heartbreak on November 24, though, Kanye confirmed to any remaining doubters that his new sound was here to stay. If anything, opening track “Say You Will” seems to double down on the aesthetic restrictions Kanye had given himself for the record: as Mike Dean summarized to MTV’s Shaheem Reid, “Every song has got to have an 808 in it… A keyboard part, no typical hip-hop beats. They’ve gotta be tribal drums. They’re all singing.” With its simple, slightly distorted 808 pattern, the song’s arrangement more closely resembles early video game music than “typical hip-hop beats”; it’s the clearest example yet of the digitally manipulated sound for which Kanye had coined the name “heartbreak,” as he explained to Luke Bainbridge of The Guardian: “A lot of people have used 808s in the past but because it was so low, nobody bothered messing with the pitch. I actually call the effect ‘heartbreak.’ It sounds distorted and electronic, and just the sound of it represents where I’m at.”
By this time, it was pretty clear where Kanye was “at,” but “Say You Will” lays it out in the starkest terms since “Pinocchio Story.” The lyrics paint a picture of Kanye, alone in his bed again–a recurring motif on this album, you may have noticed–helplessly awaiting a woman who has left him but still keeps making “calls out the blue.” On the chorus, Kanye pleads with her: “Don’t say you will / Unless you will.” But there are also hints that he’s more than a victim here–more references to choking, for example: “When I grab your neck, I touch your soul.” Then, just when the story seems to have reached its bleakest point, he reveals that none of it was real in the first place; his departed lover isn’t calling him at all, he’s just “praying” that she will. “I wish this song would really come true,” he sings on the last verse. “I admit I still fantasize about you.” As a song, “Say You Will” feels a bit like an unfinished sketch, particularly coming from a known perfectionist like Kanye. But as a statement of purpose for the album, and a prologue for the emotional themes to come, it’s pretty much ideal.
The eerie, synthesized choral moans at the end of “Say You Will” blend directly into the next song, “Welcome to Heartbreak.” As you can probably tell from the title, it’s not exactly a mood lifter. Over a mournful cello and another piano hook from Jeff Bhasker, Kanye takes stock of the emptiness of his fame and fortune: “My friend showed me pictures of his kids,” he sings, the Auto-Tune effect flattening the affect out of his voice and leaving him emotionless. “And all I could show him was pictures of my cribs.” It’s easy to scoff at a line like this, to point to it as an example of what the late comedian Harris Wittels famously dubbed the “humblebrag”–and it should surprise no one that Kanye is one of the masters of the form. But the highest praise I can offer for “Welcome to Heartbreak” is that it actually makes me feel bad for a man who admits up front that he owns multiple houses: as he puts it at the end of the second verse, “Chased the good life my whole life long / Look back on my life and my life gone / Where did I go wrong?”
“Welcome to Heartbreak” is also a spotlight for the aforementioned Kid Cudi, whose indie rock-inflected brand of introspective, half-sung hip-hop was one of 808s’ most profound influences. Born Scott Mescudi in Cleveland, Ohio, Kid Cudi first met Kanye by happenstance, when he was working at a Bathing Ape store in Brooklyn. Later, he got Plain Pat to host his debut mixtape, A Kid Named Cudi, who in turn brought the tape to Kanye’s attention; Kanye signed him to G.O.O.D. Music immediately. Cudi’s presence on the chorus of “Welcome to Heartbreak” serves as a crucial counterpoint to Kanye’s blank, robotic verses: his voice, probably even less conventionally strong than Kanye’s, is left raw and unadorned, matching the visceral impression of the lines, “my head keeps spinning / Can’t stop having these visions.” Kanye, for his part, recognized Cudi’s importance to the album’s sound: after the influence of 808s made itself felt in the “alternative” hip-hop scene, he told Complex, “Me and Cudi are the originators of the style, kinda like what Alexander McQueen is to fashion… Everything else is just Zara and H&M.”
Kanye’s commitment to making a “pop” (or, in his words, “pop art”) record with 808s & Heartbreak was impressive. It isn’t until the fourth track (and third single), “Amazing,” when anything like a typical rap is heard–and even then it comes not from Kanye, but from the highly unlikely featured artist Young Jeezy. Admittedly, the lyrics Kanye sings on “Amazing” are probably the album’s most “hip-hop” yet: looking out at his “reign” from the top of the mountain, reflecting on how he’s “the reason / Everybody fired up this evening.” But when sung over a simple piano and drum-machine arrangement, they feel too raw and intimate to be truly triumphal; it’s the musical equivalent of watching Kanye say self-affirmations in front of the mirror. Those self-affirmations, too, are cut through with a palpable self-loathing: he describes himself as a “monster” not once but twice, confessing that “I know I’m wrong.” Even Jeezy’s more traditionally boastful verse is undermined by the production, which pitch-shifts his trademark ad-libs until they sound bestial, monstrous.
As much as “Amazing” works thematically, however, it just isn’t much fun to listen to as a song. More so than even “Say You Will,” it sounds like an unfinished demo; its arrangement is tinny and flaccid, which may well be the point, but Kanye should know better than anyone that a “point” isn’t going to make you turn up your car stereo. In the end, the song’s contemplation of the dark side of pop stardom–how a little power and adulation can turn a “maven” into a “monster”–feels like a dry run for ideas, musical and thematic, that West would explore more fully in the coming years’ work.
For my money, the album’s most successful song is the fourth and final single, “Paranoid.” It’s certainly the most “pop” song on this self-proclaimed pop record: for one thing, it has actual hooks, with an icy keyboard line and synthesizer stabs that call back to 1980s R&B music; it’s easily a better attempt at a Michael Jackson song by Kanye than the aforementioned “Billie Jean” remix. It also doesn’t hurt that the voice heard most prominently on the chorus is English alt-R&B singer Mr Hudson, whose vocals are more traditionally palatable than Yeezy’s (sorry, bro), while Kanye adopts his sing-rapping style for the verses rather than singing them entirely. If nothing else, “Paranoid” comes like a breath of fresh air on an album that can often feel more than a little claustrophobic.
Somewhat less refreshing, though still a nice change of pace, is the following track, “RoboCop.” Here, Kanye revisits the lyrical themes of “Paranoid”–a woman who won’t stop suspecting him of infidelity–but with a mocking tone, comparing her to “the girl from Misery” and to the protagonist of the titular 1987 film. The arrangement feels similarly tongue-in-cheek, with an overly-saccharine string part (sampled from Patrick Doyle’s score for the 1998 movie version of Great Expectations), tinkling keyboards, and robotic whirring effects every time Kanye refers to his girl “moving like a RoboCop.” At the song’s coda, Kanye pairs one of his prettiest melodies with a mean-spirited putdown: “You spoiled little L.A. girl / You’re just an L.A. girl.” I’m not sure that I really “like” “RoboCop”; its mix of goofiness and cruelty makes it interesting, not really lovable. But I can at least say that I’m glad it exists.
I do, however, have unqualified praise for “Street Lights”: another Mr Hudson collaboration, featuring Canadian trip-hop singer Esthero (credited as Jenny-Bea Englishman) on backing vocals. Over a woozy, understated synthpop arrangement, Kanye turns in some of his most accomplished singing on the album, describing the view from his taxicab as seen through a haze of melancholy: “All the street lights, glowing, happen to be / Just like moments passing in front of me.” It’s a much-appreciated moment of quiet introspection on an album otherwise dominated by emotional turmoil, and it may just be one of Kanye’s most underrated songs. But it wouldn’t be a Kanye West album without a little bit of filler; and “Bad News,” coming as it does after one of 808s’ stronger runs, feels even more like filler than it otherwise would. It isn’t that it’s a bad song, necessarily: the keyboard and string arrangement is suitably dark and brooding, and the loping drum pattern–a stealth sample from “See-Line Woman” by Nina Simone–is one of the better beats on the album. It just isn’t really saying anything, musically or lyrically, that the album hasn’t already said before–and on a record as monochrome as this one, that’s hard to overlook.
Much better is “See You in My Nightmares,” another hip-hop-flavored track featuring Lil Wayne. Perhaps surprisingly, given his roots in no-nonsense street rap, Wayne was one of Kanye’s most vocal supporters when he released 808s & Heartbreak and threw much of the rap world for a loop; in an interview with Shaheem Reid leading up to the album, he criticized the majority of mainstream rap, complaining, “Everybody’s doing their thing, but they’re not exciting… Everybody is doing the same thing. That’s terrible. Do I love the music that’s out right now? I love it with a passion. Does it motivate me? Not one bit. That’s because 808s & Heartbreak isn’t out yet.” In a way, though, Weezy’s praise for 808s makes sense. Back in 2008, he was the only major artist other than Kanye who seemed interested in exploring the avant-garde potential of Auto-Tune, and his musical trajectory after the release of Tha Carter III was similarly restless and genre-bending–even if he didn’t quite pull it off as successfully as Yeezy.
On 808s, though, Lil Wayne played a more practical role, injecting the record with some much-needed machismo. “See You in My Nightmares” is the moment in the emotional arc of the album when Kanye finally grows some proverbial balls: from the menacing synthesizer fanfare, which sounds more like a Jeezy song than the song on which Jeezy actually appeared, to the hook, which starts with the line “I got a right to put up a fight.” It’s the sound of Kanye shaking off his depression and moving back to his more familiar bravado; that necessary moment after a painful breakup when one stops being sad and starts being angry: “Okay, I’m back up on my grind / You do you and I’m just gon’ do mine / You do you ‘cause I’m just gon’ be fine / Okay, I got you out my mind / And the night is young, the drinks is cold / The stars is out, I’m ready to go / You always thought I was always wrong / Well, now you know.” Especially after the excessively mopey “Bad News,” it’s hard not to greet the song’s sudden blast of defiance with relief.
Then, just as abruptly, Kanye grows wistful again: except this time, instead of wallowing in his feelings, he seems to be coming to terms with them. Borrowing its melody, chorus, and structure from the 1983 song “Memories Fade” by Tears for Fears, “Coldest Winter” ends the album on an elegaic note, with Kanye looking back one last time on the loss of his mother and his relationship: “Goodbye, my friend / Will I ever love again?” The lines struck me as melodramatic at first–and they definitely are–but it’s worth noting that they come directly from the Tears song. In that sense, they–and the song itself–have an interesting meta quality: Kanye using an emotional pop song from his childhood to help him through his pain, then turning it into another song that has, no doubt, helped others to work through some shit of their own. In closing the circle between the artist and the listener, it also completes the album’s thematic cycle: Kanye began 808s waiting in vain for his ex-lover to call, and he ends it by finally telling her (and his mother) goodbye.
808s & Heartbreak is far from Kanye West’s best album; in fact, by my own entirely subjective ranking, it’s probably his worst. At its lowest points, it’s an insular, self-indulgent record, one in which Kanye’s most appealing qualities–his brash exuberance, not to mention his impeccable craftsmanship–are too often muted by a cloudy layer of depression. It feels like a Kanye West record for people who like the Postal Service; which is fine, I guess, if that’s what you like, but I prefer Kanye West records for people who like Kanye West.
And yet, listening to it in depth for the first time, I gained a new appreciation for the album. It’s hard to overstate how different it was when it came out seven years ago–not just from Kanye’s previous work, but from everything else on the charts. Without the chutzpah–or perhaps the hubris–that led Kanye to slap Young Jeezy on a track like “Amazing” and release it as a single, the pop music world would be a much poorer place. And though the album is undoubtedly a bit too ponderous for its own good–even the cover, a deflated balloon in the shape of a heart, is almost childlike in its banality–it’s still an affecting work of art, largely because it makes the artist’s pain at the time of its writing and recording so palpable.
But the highest praise I have for 808s & Heartbreak is this: it was this album, more than any other, that unleashed Kanye West from the burden of expectation. With 808s, he finally said “fuck it” and made the album he wanted to make, with no compromises: in the Guardian interview, he affirmed, “Now I just make music for me. It’s like my house, because it’s where I have to live. It’s what I have to perform, 100 shows a year. So people may comment on it to their friends, but when they try and make a suggestion to me, it’s like suggesting I change the couch in my living room – ‘Fuck you, it’s my couch.’ I’m just allowing people in my home… if you don’t like it, you can leave.” That brazenly independent attitude may not have produced my favorite album the first time around; but its results in the years since have been, as far as I’m concerned, without parallel.
Next time–which might be before the end of September, or might be as late as November–we’ll talk about one of those albums I consider unparalleled. Until then, here’s the Spotify playlist: